The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 50 | Jusuf Nurkic
Games Played with Blazers: 171 Regular Season, 5 Postseason
*PTS: 15.0 | REB: 9.7 | OREB: 2.9 | FG%: 50.7
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: February 2017, acquired from the Denver Nuggets with a first-round pick for Mason Plumlee
Departed Club: Currently active player
Place in History: When the Trail Blazers traded center Mason Plumlee midway through the 2016-17 season, low-key grumbling percolated through the organization and the fan base. Plumlee was a solid hand, well-liked among teammates, one of those guys who played within himself while helping out everyone else. In ensuing interviews, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey explained the rationale for the move, which included Plumlee’s impending free agency and the opportunity to pick up a first-round pick from the Denver Nuggets. The returning player, third-year center Jusuf Nurkic, was underplayed to the point that Olshey’s interview with Blazers broadcasting barely mentioned him.
Caution might have been warranted. Nurkic had talent, but also baggage. He and Nikola Jokic had battled for floor time in Denver, then struggled to fit next to each other. The underground report from the Nuggets locker room was that Nurkic had turned into a handful, and not in the good way. His per-minute numbers were good. Long-term potential was evident. Still, Denver had never seen it fit to play him even 20 minutes per game, on average. Plumlee was no star, but his stats and Nurkic’s were comparable and the Blazers knew Mason could start. It looked as if, just maybe, the 23-31 Blazers were giving up on the season, or at least were ready to put it at risk for longer-term gain.
Nurkic would have none of that.
Portland lost three of the first four games in which Nurkic played, it’s true. But by the second outing he had snagged the starting center position. The Blazers would go 13-3 over their next 16. On March 9th, Nurkic scored 28 points with 20 rebounds, 8 assists and 6 blocked shots as the Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in front of a home crowd that went completely bonkers. The phrase “Nurk Fever” entered Portland’s lexicon, and the new center’s place was secured. A fibular fracture in his right leg would end his season (save a brief appearance for a single playoff game), but the best was yet to come.
Nurkic would play 79 games in 2017-18. During the following offseason, he trimmed down and rededicated himself to defense. The results were tangible. More mobile in the lane, Nurkic began providing a true backstop for historically permissive guards, allowing them to play to their defensive strengths instead of having to handle opponents by themselves. Portland’s traditional “ice into the lane” approach began to diversify. Suddenly the prowess of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless began to pay dividends. For the first time since the winter of 2015, basketball in Portland looked beautiful. The previous year’s lineup had remained essentially unchanged; Nurkic was the difference.
In the process, Nurkic would set career-high marks in shooting percentage, assists, points, rebounds, free throw attempts, free throw percentage...essentially everything but blocks.
Portland held a 45-27 record when they faced the Brooklyn Nets in a double-overtime donnybrook on March 31st, 2019. They’d win the game, in part because Nurkic scored 32 with 16 rebounds and 4 blocks that night. They’d lose him to a badly-fractured left leg which has kept him out of the game for a year at the time of this writing. Note for posterity: The 2019-20 NBA season was truncated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nurkic may well have returned before the end of the season were the Blazers still playing games.
Portland made a magnificent run in the 2019 NBA Playoffs behind Damian Lillard and yeoman work from reserve center Enes Kanter. They reached the Western Conference Finals before being summarily dismissed by the Golden State Warriors. They were in a position to go that far, in large part, because of Nurkic’s transformation. It was subtle, yet one of the most significant season-to-season evolutions the team has experienced, especially considering Nurkic was not a rookie and not a star.
For providing the magic ingredient, spurring Portland’s best performance of the 2010’s, for exceeding expectations and for reliable production on both ends of the court; Jusuf Nurkic earned the #50 on our countdown of Top 100 Trail Blazers players and influencers, with potential upward mobility yet ahead.
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